May 28, 2014 is a day that the world lost two very special ladies, Maya Angelou, the renowned American poet, author and human rights activist and Barbara Huberman, a determined advocate for sexual education in America who fought successfully against teen pregnancies. They died at the age of 86 and 72 respectively. They were both strong women who spent their lives strengthening the voice of womankind and encouraging others to do the same. Their message deserves to be spread far and wide so that the good work they did will carry on and change lives across the globe.
Maya Angelou was best selling author of seven autobiographies, and several books of poetry and essays. She received over 30 honorary doctoral degrees and several awards including the Grammy. In February 2011, she was awarded the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’, America’s highest civilian honour. “We need to recognize and applaud our heroes and she-roes”, said Angelou. She believed that empowered individuals, whether men or women need to be held up as shining examples to the rest of mankind to emulate and admire. Women must be applauded as she-roes, for their courage, grace, intelligence, wisdom, not just as ‘heroines’ or stereotypical consorts to the real doer- the hero.
Angelou believed in celebrating womanhood. “I am grateful to be a woman. I must have done something great in another lifetime,” she said. In her poem, ‘Phenomenal Woman’ Angelou captured the essence of feminity, which is beauty itself and needs no other special characteristics to render a woman beautiful.
“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed,
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud,
Its in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
The palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
‘Cause I’m a woman,
She felt it to be perfectly reasonable that women would stand up for women’s rights as she exclaimed, “I’m interested in women’s health because I’m a woman. I’d be a darn fool not to be on my own side.” She also supported that women strengthen themselves educationally, economically, psychologically and physically. She upheld self empowerment as the rational path to a liberated existence on earth. “A wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim.” Her life was full of turmoil as a young African girl in America where she herself was the victim of hurtful discrimination and sexual abuse. She overcame all that to become a voice of inspiration through her books and talks.
Our second very special lady, Barbara Huberman was a nurse at a hospital in North Carolina when a life changing experience occurred. She was assigned to help with the childbirth of a girl who was little over ten years old. She held the child mother’s hand for most part of the two day labour process and the sight she saw when she came back was to find the child mother filling in a Mickey Mouse colour book with her newborn beside her. “I just couldn’t take it anymore, with the children getting younger and sadder. I said, someone’s got to work on prevention,” she later revealed. Her strategy was to open up dialogues and encourage talking about sexual issues with children and adolescents in the safe environment of home or Sunday School. She stressed that if parents and guardians don’t talk to their children about sexuality, the streets will. She also advocated policy level changes and a paradigm shift in how government viewed this problem. “Teen sexual behaviour is viewed in many contexts: a moral failing, a political issue, a private family matter, a public health concern, but seldom as a developmental matter.” She was highly criticized too, mostly by self appointed moralists. She replied to them in the State General Assembly, “To opponents of sexuality education and family planning who say… ‘It is morally wrong’, I say it is morally wrong for us to allow young people to be sent into the adult world without the knowledge skills and values to negotiate sexual decision making responsibility.”
While Maya Angelou stood for making women equal and empowered members of society and highlighting their strength, Barbara Huberman made it a life mission to put an end to the sexual vulnerability of girls and overcome their biggest weakness. Both of them succeeded and together they represent two ends of the entire spectrum of women related issues with empowerment on one end and protection on the other. These are the two aspects any nation must tackle if it hopes to have a policy that truly delivers the goods on making women part of the mainstream society and real contributors to nation building. With the new government having started on the right note with 25% of the cabinet comprising of women, one hopes that the range of issues disempowering our women today will be attacked from both ends of the spectrum.
Empowerment includes giving women the opportunities they deserve and creating an enabling environment for them to succeed on the basis of their merit. The BJP members were pressing for Women’s Reservation Bill which BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi even helped draft. Now is the time to bring it into force. Equally important is the need for the new leaders of the nation to keep up a mass communication campaign wherein all of them including the prime minister talk about the rightful status of women in society as respectable equals, not weak inferiors. This seemingly small communication effort will itself do wonders because at the roots of the material economic and political discrimination against women, lies the non-material socio-psychological cause. It needs to be addressed at that root level through communication exercises if real and lasting change is to occur.
Protection involves protecting women from rape and especially young girls from sexual predators and pedophiles, in the street, in the homes, online, everywhere. Protection of females equally involves sensitization of young girls and ensuring sexuality education for them. It includes empowering all females with self-defence classes and basic legal knowledge so that if they find that the police is not helping them, they can confidently knock at the doors of court, not be compelled to commit suicide in the false belief that all their options are closed. Also, the police needs to be sensitized to women related issues and made accountable because they are important stakeholders in the protection of women. For this to happen it is essential that the archaic imperial laws which govern our police are put away and fresh laws are brought in to ensure transparency and accountability.
A global poll by Thomson Reuters found India to be the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women, following Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan. Even Somalia is better off at number five. India, the biggest democracy on earth cannot find respect in the eyes of the world if it cannot ensure dignity for its women who make up 49% of the population. The voice of women must be heard in the Media, in court-rooms, in board-rooms, in defence forces, Panchayats, local political bodies and Parliament. Their representation in the nation’s power centers should not be mere tokenism but a realistic proportional representation. Every woman must have control over her own life, her body, her time and her money. This can only happen when women do not look toward others for protection or applause but protect themselves and applaud themselves. ...Divya Gurnay.